Bill gives hospitals seismic extension

Like many things in Sacramento, though, the bills are complicated and rely on the passage of an additional hospital finance bill to become operative, said Anne McLeod, senior vice president of health policy for the California Hospital Association.

It remains to be seen whether an informational senate hearing scheduled for Wednesday on seismic safety will have any bearing on the just-signed package of bills. Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, called for the hearing, which will focus on hospital and school seismic safety, largely in response to the California Watch series On Shaky Ground.

The hospital seismic deadline extension bills signed by the governor were part of a legislative package that gives hospitals a much-needed budget boost.

The bills allow California to continue a "draw-down" maneuver pioneered by former Assemblyman Dave Jones, who is now insurance commissioner. The maneuver allows hospitals to pay a fee up front in order to get matching and additional funds from the federal government.

The bills signed by the governor extend this budget maneuver for six months. The hospital seismic provisions would only become "operative" if a subsequent bill is passed extending the budget maneuver for several years, McLeod said.

In the hospital world, this strategy is like a complicated bridge game with a mixed bag of winners and losers. The budget maneuver creates some kings and paupers, since the federal government requires that hospitals pay equally to start the draw down, but redistributes the money in proportion to hospitals' Medi-Cal service provision.

And in regard to seismic upgrades, the losers could be considered the facilities that dug deep into their pockets to fix shaky buildings, fully expecting deadlines set for 2013 and 2015 to stay in place. The winners could be considered those that get more time.

Giving hospitals more time has been controversial. The California Nurses Association and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, spoke out against the deadline extension during a legislative hearing. The nurses union has expressed concern about worker safety in case of a quake. And Ammiano said he felt the deadly quake in Japan should have given pause to those seeking so much more time for hospitals.

The seismic bill, if operative, would give hospitals the opportunity to apply to the state hospital building agency, the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, for incremental deadline extensions for shoring up buildings that are deemed to pose the most danger.

About 660 hospital buildings fall into this category. Paul Coleman, a facilities official at the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, said during the legislative hearing that 49 of them stand to hit their deadline Jan. 1, 2013. State law authorizes the Department of Public Health to de-license hospitals that miss their deadlines. If all 49 missed the deadline, 15 percent of the beds in Southern California would be out of operation, Coleman testified.

The not-yet-operational law calls on OSHPD to make deadline extension decisions with an eye to each hospital's financial capacity to get the work done, the community need for its services and the hospital's structural stability.

Hospitals seeking an extension will be expected to undergo a complex analysis resulting in a "collapse risk" score.

Currently, hospitals can qualify for deadline extensions if their score is 1.2 percent or lower, and OSHPD spokesman David Byrnes said in an email that that "is not intended or expected to change."

Hospitals that do not apply for an extension will still face deadlines currently in place, Byrnes said.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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